News & Update

Centering Community in Collective Impact

Through a decade of place-based work, we’ve gathered these tools and lessons for bringing community voice into the collective impact model. How can these apply to your own work?

Through our place-based work over the last 10 years, Living Cities has been testing and building on the 5 pillars of the Collective Impact approach, as defined by FSG in 2010. Through our external work in places and internal racial equity journey, we have come to understand the critical role of community in changing systems and achieving population level change—a fundamental element missing in the original framework.

Within collective impact tables, “community” speaks to the people who are the lifeblood of a place. One key lesson from our racial equity journey is that the systems we are working to change—from how we receive education to how we find jobs—are made up of people. Building individuals’ racial equity competencies is critical in order to equip people to make different decisions, interrogate their own biases and understand root causes as they design and implement systems change strategies. Collective impact exists in this power continuum: who gets to imagine the change, create the change and identifies the impact the change should have.

Our last three years of place-based work has greatly informed us about how we show up and are perceived when we enter a local context as a national funder. Now, we want to spark conversation about what we have learned through seeking to challenge these “traditional” modes of engagement between philanthropy and communities. And we hope to continue to learn from our networks. Share your lessons and questions through Twitter @Living_Cities using #WhatREILooksLike or by email, in particular: How have you seen these power dynamics at play, in your community or institution? How are you challenging those dynamics?

1. Let communities define what success looks like for themselves.

Our implementation of Collective Impact initiatives lacked a prescriptive design and structure, which allowed communities we worked with to define their own success, their own North Star, their own vision for a better city. As we thought about the implications of our presence in communities, we asked ourselves:

  • Is our presence empowering community or hindering their progress?
  • Can the community determine what growth looks like for themselves?
  • What tools, resources and connections can Living Cities bring to the table to support this community-driven change?

2. Community has been left out of the Collective Impact equation.

Collective Impact in its current framework often does not acknowledge the core of what makes systems change sustainable and equitable: community leadership and voice. The framework has successfully rallied much of philanthropy around the idea that systems change approaches can create greater impact than isolated programs. But, we too often fail to address power dynamics when we leave community out of the equation.

As leadership tables formed, we tried to ask ourselves and local partners:

  • Which community is in greatest need of our philanthropic dollars based on depth of poverty they face and presence of people of color?
  • Who are the leaders in this community and how can we support their vision?
  • How can we best drive racial equity by putting community in the driver’s seat of our Collective Impact initiative?

3. Anti-Racist Results should drive participation.

At Living Cities, we’ve used a Results Based Accountability (RBA) frame to establish a Theory of Change: what is the change in the population level data we want to achieve, and what can we do to effectively contribute to that result? But through collaboration with partners, we learned that an RBA framework on its own was not enough to ensure that our efforts weren’t continuing to reinforce racist systems. Achieving results that equitably improve outcomes for all requires us to specifically hold an anti-racist lens in all we do.

The poverty and racism communities face are not just impacted by city-level systems, but also by regional and national systems of inequity. We recognized that we need more regional players at the table, and that stakeholders at every level—communities, cities, regions, and the nation—must work within an anti-racist Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework in order to align resources towards a common result.

Beyond bringing accountability, the framework can also be a tool to build relationships, trust, and continuous improvement. In The Integration Initiative (TII) work in San Francisco, the collaborative’s process of building their framework guided the group through conversations around a reparations for public housing residents. Some of the questions that guide our RBA work include:

  • Do all stakeholders at this table have a common results framework in mind?
  • Have community members vetted the results and measures we are using to track progress toward the community’s North Star?
  • How can we collectively improve upon the work that’s been done before based on the results we’re seeing in our work?

Looking for more tools to support you in transferring power back to community?

We seek to lift up the lessons on centering the communities most impacted by poverty and racism and invest in their vision to close the racial income and wealth gap in America. Please continue to follow along as we share insights from this work.

Additional insights and input from Alyssa Smaldino, Senior Associate at Living Cities.

Art by Ricardo Levins Morales

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